The bigger picture : Assessing Zimbabwe’s internet blockade

As African citizens become progressively aware of their rights, more will take to the streets to demand that their leaders meet their needs.

Civil disobedience is a tool that some governments on the continent are increasingly realising can be fuelled and sustained by the internet, and this has seen more governments impose an internet shutdown.

This has become a go-to solution at both country and regional level despite commitments to ensure democratic governance of the internet in regional blocks. Internet shutdowns on the African continent are on the increase. While this alone is a worrying development, it is the events that occur prior to, during and after the shutdowns that are of greater concern.

Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo launched internet shutdowns in 2018 and these spilled into 2019. On 7 January 2019, Gabonese citizens were slapped with a 48-hour blackout following an attempted military coup. A week later, Zimbabweans experienced a seven-day internet shutdown that moved from a total obstruction to a partial blockage of social media platforms.

Second and longer disruption

This was not be the first time Zimbabweans experienced internet service disruption. The precedent flash flood shutdown in July 2016 fell under similar circumstances – nationwide stay-away (industrial action) and the targeting of then popular instant messenger application, WhatsApp. But the resultant outcry saw services restored in just over two hours. However, there remains a lack of clarity on who ordered the shutdown.

Under the stewardship of Robert Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe continues down a trail of repression of the media and free expression. This is despite his commitment to allowing greater free expression and freedom of the media as he wooed the Zimbabwean electorate and introduced himself to the rest of the world during his presidential campaign.

As a result of lack of progress in media reforms, Zimbabwe was ranked 126 out of 180 countries surveyed in an annual World Press Freedom Index of 2018, only two places up from the year before. Throughout the year, media lobby advocacy groups in the country noted the continued partisan nature and lack of editorial independence of the public media, and particularly so during the election period. They also documented continuing violations against media practitioners.

The Zimbabwean government felt the pressure of a highly connected citizenry pre, during and post the harmonised election of 30 July 2018. With an internet penetration of slightly over 55%, utterances and warnings by the authorities against irresponsible use of social media, mainly in the form of fake news, mounted. With a worsening economic environment, social media was said to be the cause through the creation of artificial shortages and a black-market economy.

No doubt, African governments face a mammoth task as they try to control the internet in the same manner that they have traditional media through licensing regimes, blatant censorship and harassment of journalists. The internet enables citizens to access counter narratives to those offered by the mainstream media. They are also able to continuously engage, share opinions on highly sensitive political developments and interrogate performance of those in leadership while motivating for and mobilising each other in civic action. In 2018, the #KeepItOn campaign recorded 21 internet interruptions on the continent.

Caught off guard

While there was a section of Zimbabwe’s civil society that anticipated a shutdown, it was only in as far as the election was concerned. Many expected internet interruptions in the run-up to the election, polling day and possibly during the announcement of the results.

New media and civic technologies organisation Magamba Network launched a toolkit on how to circumvent a shutdown around the election period with the support of Access Now’s #KeepItOn campaign. Beyond that there was no possibility that the government would shut down the internet, not after allowing Zimbabweans, in their diversity, to engage during what was perceived to be a highly charged election. However, it would emerge during the partial shutdown, that the call for the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) was largely ignored. The Digital Society of Zimbabwe said that during the shutdown it had been overwhelmed by the amount of technical, VPN support and raid strategies that it had to offer, especially to civil society organisations.

This in no way downplays civil society’s work to respond to the increase of internet shutdowns on the continent. It is a Constitutional Court challenge by civil society organisations, MISA Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights that finally saw services restored in Zimbabwe. Current regional coalition petitions and legal challenges to shutdowns remain very important. However, civil society needs to be more proactive than reactive.

Zimbabwean civil society was not adequately prepared for a shutdown during its election, let alone a total shutdown. At least not in the manner that Nigerian civil society seems geared to deal with a shutdown during its election. Awareness raising has intensified as organisations led by the Paradigm Initiative attempt to increase awareness to citizens in order for them to respond even in the eventuality of a total shutdown. Whether intentionally or not, the Nigerian government has been cornered into committing to not shutting down the internet. Given the controversy around the election, it will be interesting to observe how long the awareness campaign will go on and how Nigerians will handle the shutdown, in the eventuality that one occurs.

Going forward, a more rigorous proactive scoping and detection of shutdowns, sustained public awareness beyond high-risk national events and pressure on authorities to commit to not shutting down the internet is necessary. The private media and civil society also have to stand ready to counter intensified government propaganda during an internet shutdown.

Internet shutdown is political

Internet access provision in Africa is no longer just business; it is political.

If ever there was a time for the African private sector to be at the table of mainstream internet governance debates and initiatives both at national and regional level, it is now. Service providers are either enlisted or coerced by government to effect shutdowns, to which they comply, without adequate knowledge of the legality of the process and its implications on the rights of their users.

Two issues remain disturbing about the shutdown. The first is that the written directive from Zimbabwe’s Office of the President for the suspension of services was not issued to the whole sector. This alone is evidence that the shutdown initially targeted larger providers – the mobile network operators. Some smaller telecommunications companies allege that they did not receive any communication and that the shutdown was aimed at a higher level upstream.

The second issue was that on receipt of the directive, the country’s largest mobile operator, Econet, not only complied, but encouraged other players to follow suit as the matter was beyond their control. Service providers have no business shutting down the internet, and a number of issues remain within their control.

The private sector must understand national legislation and the extent to which shutdowns are legal within their context. Who has the authority to order a shutdown, under what circumstances, and what are the procedures for reporting or notifying users? Secondly, service providers need to be in the forefront of calls and processes for reforms of policy and legislation that has left not only them vulnerable, but also their users who they have an obligation to protect. This is possible, as we have seen with the South African Internet Service Providers Association, which has been visible in the law-making processes for the Electronic Communications Regulation.

Committing to not shutting down

For a significant number of governments, it seems, effecting total or partial internet blackouts, restricting access to targeted websites and social media, and throttling of bandwidth is the only measure of control.

They will not hesitate to shut down the internet should they feel overwhelmed by dissent – even outside an election. The strategy has also changed from silent shutdown re-occurrences in some African states such as seen in Ethiopia and Gabon, to more blatant and shameless admission by some that they will not hesitate to shut the internet down again. In an interview with a local radio station, Capitalk 100.4FM, Zimbabwe’s presidential spokesperson justified future shutdowns stating that they are standard practice whenever there are very serious civil disturbances in any country.

It is such declarations by government officials that make a mockery of the adoption of the African Union Declaration on Internet Governance at a summit held a year ago. While the declaration makes progressive commitments on cybersecurity, human rights and freedom of expression on the continent, on-the-ground actions by member states are contrary to its principles. It would seem incorporation of regionally agreed provisions over national interests and values of sovereign states is a challenge. Furthermore, the nature and composition of African states, and the power dynamics across the region, reflect varying levels of political will in the adoption of resolutions made at the annual African Internet Governance Forum.

Agreed, declarations do not legally bind states, nor do they compel governments to take actions. However, they set standards by reminding member states of the need to promote and protect fundamental freedoms, especially the right to freedom of expression and access to information.

The lack of an interim coordinated approach to seek accountability and ensure commitment of states to principles of what is seen as yet another non-legally binding instrument, leaves room for the continuation of internet shutdowns as states exercise their sovereignty.

While there is not always political will on the part of some governments to guarantee uninterrupted access to the internet, sustained advocacy for internet freedom by non-state actors is necessary. In all the countries where the internet is always at risk of being blocked, civil society must go beyond ad hoc measures. The threats of increased internet blackouts are real and alternative restorative solutions should always be in place even as governments continue to be engaged for lasting outcomes.

This post was originally published on Koliwe Majama’s own blog.

Koliwe Majama is a Zimbabwean media, information, communications and technologies consultant with over 15 years of experience working in civil society lobby and advocacy. In the region and globally she has invested in networking and thought leadership on varying internet governance trends, including gender and the internet – which she has a passion for. Koliwe was the coordinator of the 2017 and 2018 editions of the African School on Internet Governance (AfriSIG).

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